Lions training camp preview: Buono’s biggest year yet

It didn’t take a math major to determine the projected course for the B.C. Lions when Wally Buono looked at his team after last season.

In the first season after posting a 13-5 record as a first-year head coach in 2012, Mike Benevides guided the Lions to an 11-7 mark. In 2014, they were 9-9, and in 2015 they went 7-11 under Jeff Tedford.

A five-win season this year? It’s a distinct possibility based solely on the trend, which is why there was only one logical move for Buono to make in the off-season, and it has become the centerpiece for the Lions’ reconstruction, along with a contract extension given to quarterback Jon Jennings.

Buono made himself the oldest pro football coach in North America when he did nothing last December to stop Tedford when the club reported he used an option in his contract to resign, less than a year after being touted by the Lions as the heir apparent to the winningest coach in the CFL. When the Lions open the regular season June 25, Buono will break past Don Matthews to become the longest-serving coach in league history, starting his 23rd year.

The task for Buono this year is simple because despite 13 stellar years in the Lions front office, it is no longer a stretch to suggest the future of the organization is at stake.

In a market where hockey is king and soccer has the Lions looking nervously over their collective shoulder, nothing less than a playoff win will do, preferably at home, where they haven’t won a game at B.C. Place Stadium in mid-November since Buono strolled off the field with his grandson after the Lions 2011 Grey Cup victory.

It’s a huge ask in a division where Chris Jones and Kyle Walters made bigger off-season headlines, but Buono responded by having one of his best winters since discovering life after Michael Feterik and the Calgary Stampeders. Normally passive in free agency, the Lions took a different approach with several low-profile but well-calculated acquisitions.

Here’s a position-by-position look as the new/old coach begins to form a roster with the opening of rookie training camp today in Kamloops prior to Sunday’s main camp first session:

Quarterback

Jennings had onlookers believing he could walk on water after mere weeks as an injury replacement to Travis Lulay and the Lions signaled their intention to undergo a transition. Both quarterbacks received extensions, and Buono insisted the top job would remain open during camp.

How that will square with a fan base clearly intent on seeing change is unclear but it could make the pre-season games interesting if the Lions are true to their word. Unsaid so far is the likelihood that both will contribute this season due to injuries.

Nonetheless, B.C.’s depth is no worse than any divisional opponent and is strong enough the Lions didn’t sweat the recent demands of rookie Vernon Adams, who happily took a deal from Montreal reportedly just south of $100,000 annually instead of third-string money from Buono.

Running back

If Buono isn’t judged by how he handles his quarterbacks rest assured he will be assessed by the results of his off-season move to punt Andrew Harris without any sort of contract fight.

Chris Rainey is why the Lions didn’t push to keep Harris. Buono decided quickly his team needed an import focus to his ground game, not only signing Rainey to a new deal but two CFL veterans, Jeremiah Johnson and Anthony Allen, in free agency. The Johnson-Allen battle could be the best one in camp; it’s hard to think both will make the opening day roster.

There’s almost nowhere for the ground game to go but up this year; with Harris, B.C. was eighth in 2015 in rushing yards. Whether it is better than Harris at his best will be the measuring stick for many, however. B.C. is also looking for a contribution from second-year Canadian Shaquille Murray-Lawrence.

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Not only are the Lions undergoing a remake on the field but their Surrey practice facility storefront is undergoing a facelift to honour the past (3Down)

Receivers

There were few veteran free agent additions to a position group that was seventh in passing yardage last year, and yet the Lions feel they will be better. That stems from a change in the coaching office, where B.C. made no attempt to stop George Cortez from retiring as offensive coordinator following one highly dismal season with the Lions.

Khari Jones derived better results when he had the same job in 2014 with the Lions. He’ll have Nick Moore back from Winnipeg. A training camp prospect to watch in camp: Dutch-born Geraldo Boldewijn, who asked for his release after last season only to re-sign with the Lions.

Offensive line

Buono tweaked the Canadian ratio for Harris by acquiring Victoria native Tim O’Neill from Hamilton, which should get the Lions over the hump at centre for at least a year. The rest of the group after tackle Jovan Olafioye is a mixed bag, and they’ll have to get used to the teachings of returning legendary assistant Dan Dorazio, who brings with free agent tackle Levy Adcock with him after a one-year hiatus in Saskatchewan.

B.C. was top three is fewest sacks allowed last year, so the metrics are strong. Camp issues include whether Hunter Steward (foot) is healthy and can switch to guard.

Defensive line

B.C. struggled without a dominant Cam Wake pass rusher but have weaned themselves off 36-year-old Khreem Smith and figure to be better. The Lions will benefit from having identified sophomores Mich’eal Brooks and Zach Minter as finds last year, keeping Jabar Westerman inside and snaring Bryant Turner as Smith’s potential replacement. Other names to watch based on the Lions’ April mini-camp: Darius Allen (Colorado State) and Andrew Hudson (Washington).

Linebackers

What was already looking like a long season became insufferable last year when Solomon Elimimian tore his Achilles and the Lions lost seven of their last 11 outings. Elimimian will be at camp but the nature of his injury will have him being watched carefully.

However Adam Bighill is healthy and if Elimimian isn’t ready the Lions have an easy move. B.C. is committed to giving third-year pro Bo Lokombo more time on the field this year. How that’s done could prove to be the x-factor for Mark Washington’s defence, which was a porous eighth against the run last season.

Defensive back

Ageless Ryan Phillips is back and the short-side tandem of Ronnie Yell and T.J. Lee figures to remain untouched, but it would appear the Lions have auditions planned everywhere else.

Hamilton vet Brandon Stewart was signed to play at wide-side cornerback. Mike Edem was signed as a free agent to push Eric Fraser at safety. B.C. hadn’t addressed a vacancy at nickelback with experience but will move returning sophomore Steven Clarke to a new position. Practice roster sophomore Darious Lane and free agent Chandler Fenner (NY Giants) will push Clarke.

Special teams

If dumping Harris was Buono’s boldest off-season move, maintaining faith in kicker Richie Leone might be next. Leone was an all-star punter as a rookie but struggled to replace Paul McCallum. Nonetheless the Lions will keep the position as an import spot and want one player to handle all kicking duties.

However arguably the biggest off-season acquisition of all could well be the addition of special teams coach Marcello Simmons after the Chuck McMann-led unit ended last season an unmitigated train wreck. A group coached by Simmons might be the reason the Lions are at least two wins better this year instead of projecting the other way.

Lowell Ullrich

Lowell Ullrich

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.
Lowell Ullrich
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Lowell Ullrich
About Lowell Ullrich (110 Articles)
Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.

1 Comment on Lions training camp preview: Buono’s biggest year yet

  1. Marc Lebut // May 27, 2016 at 9:54 am //

    Wally’s main weakness with the Lions has always been to build great O lines. This is where the Lions failed mostly and why they had so many QBs washed out over the years (Dickenson, Pierce, Lulay). Wally let know early after last season he would be back on the sidelines, and although both of his long time assistants (Chapdelaine and Benevides) were available, none of them returned to BC. Why?

    Now he’ll go on with Khari Jones, who proved nothing as an OC and Mark Washington, who never built top notch D even though he had top notch players. No wonder the soccer team is steaming in Lions’ neck.

    Lions have a diamond with Jennings but they must find a way to protect him better than they did with their last 3 “franchise” QBs.

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